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The United Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearance: Unraveling the Shaker Myth

Decline of the Shakers

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Late 1890's - 1992

As the nineteenth century came to a close, the questions regarding the Shakers ability to last as a society began to rise. These questions were not simply unfounded accusations from the outside world; rather, they were legitimate questions that were being asked by the Shakers themselves. During the 1880’s and 1890’s the central ministry was forced to close two Shaker communities. The first to close was the North Union community, followed shortly by the Groveland community. The Shakers entered the twentieth century facing old age, death, institutional decay, and tough economic times, which lead to the closing of several communities. As more and more communities were closed, the central ministry located in Canterbury decided in 1929 that the issue of the assets from the sales of these villages must be dealt with. The solution that they came up with was to open a trust that was to be administered by the bank. The funds of this trust were to be used to sustain the remaining Shakers.

 

In 1947 the Mount Lebanon village which had been selling off various parcels of land piece by piece for several years was finally closed. This left only three active villages remaining: Canterbury, Hancock, and Sabbathday Lake. These remaining villages did not experience much of the post World War II boom that was experienced by much of the rest of the country, further adding to the belief held by many that the Shakers were finished as a society. In 1951 there were less than forty Shakers remaining in the country. Hancock was home to seven sisters and one brother, Canterbury had fifteen sisters, and Sabbathday Lake housed sixteen sisters, one brother, and a small group of girls. Of the remaining Shakers, the majority of the population was elderly, resulting in fairly frequent deaths. This was a major concern for the population as it was no longer able to take in children due to new state laws and there were no longer younger members to step up and replace the older members.

 

The trust fund opened by the central ministry in 1929 was re-organized and re-named the Shaker Central Trust in 1959. The board of trustees would be made up of six members. One member of the board was to be from each of the remaining three villages and one lawyer chosen by each of the representatives from each village. A year later, the Hancock community was also closed, leaving Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake as the only active villages. Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake where divided on their views regarding the future of Shakerism. Canterbury felt that they should close the community to new members and simply let the society die out. The Sabbathday Lake community on the other hand was less pessimistic in regards to their future. However, as Canterbury was still considered the head of the central ministry, they were able to make the final decision to close membership in 1965. The Shakers at Sabbathday Lake made the decision to continue to accept un-covenanted members. Sabbathday Lake became the only remaining active Shaker community in 1992 when the last Shaker sister at Canterbury passed away.